It’s been almost 50 years since I took an Art History 101 course at Fordham University. I didn’t know it at the time but that experience would shape my lifelong interest in Art ever since.
I still remember the charismatic teacher for that course, Sabine Gova, who would keep me enthralled for nearly 3 hours each Tuesday afternoon while she projected countless slides of art and architectural masterworks and brought them to life. In addition to her knowledge of the paintings and artists that she shared, she also imparted another gift. She taught me how to look.
Every week, with countless images, she would challenge us with a variety of questions: “What do you see?, What is happening in this scene?, “Are the figures properly proportioned?”, “What makes this work a masterpiece?”. Precisely the type of questions I ask myself when I tour museum exhibits today.
Madame Gova, who was French, exposed me to artists such as Giotto, Leonardo, Albert Durer, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Monet and Matisse to cite only ten who remain personal favorites.
I have traveled to museums at home and in Europe and admired the works of those ten and many more. However, this summer I am exploring the very region–Provence and the Cote d’Azur in southern France–where many late 19th and 20th Century artists lived and captured the special quality of light and landscape one finds there.
And many of the towns—Aix-en-Provence, Antibes, Biot, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Le Cannet, Nice, Vence–house museums dedicated solely to the work of the artist who lived and painted there. The museum in Aix features Cezanne’s studio, Antibes honors Picasso (who has museums in Villauris and Paris as well), Biot features Fernand Leger, Cagnes has the home where Renoir spent the final twelve years of his life, Le Cannet was home to Bonnard (an attractive museum housed in a former villa just opened in June), Nice has Matisse and Chagall museums.
It was a special treat to step into the very place—and the upstairs studio—that Renoir called home! Or to roam—and sometimes recognize—the same everyday places that Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Cezanne and Bonnard immortalized in paint. Compared to this living experience, a museum seems a much more sterile, impersonal storehouse.
Two artists—Matisse and Jean-Michel Folon—even created two great works of architecture. Each has designed beautiful chapels brightly illuminated by stain glass (Matisse) or glowing mosaic tiles (Folon). Matisse’s chapel is in Vence and was done to thank the order of nuns who cared for him during his last years. Folon, following Matisse’s example—designed La Chapelle des Penitents Blancs (White Penitent’s Chapel)—in St. Paul de Vence. He died in 2005 but his friends completed his vision. I had the pleasure of participating in Sunday Mass at the Matisse chapel and am told that Folon’s chapel is used for mass and marriage ceremonies.
Most of the museums are modest in scale except for the Leger and Matisse museums which are large structures. The museums’ holdings vary in quality. Each has around 50-100 works on display, ranging from paintings to drawings, photographs and archival material. However, nearly all the real treasures produced by these artists are now housed in American and European collections like MoMA, the Art Institute, and the Musee d’Orsay.
The inaugural exhibit at the new Bonnard Museum was drawn from international collections. The American collector who first collected Bonnard, an artist whose ranking has climbed steadily in the past 25 years, was Duncan Phillips (a gem of a house museum in Washington, D.C.). His acquisition is on display as is a beauty from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art which mounted a stunning Bonnard exhibition a few years ago.
An absolute must-see on a journey to this region is France’s only privately-run museum, the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence. It could qualify as an artist museum since its founder, Aime Maeght, was originally a lithographer in Cannes who befriended many of the artists in that region beginning in the 1940s. Maeght went on to become a highly successful art dealer and publisher of art books in Paris.
When one of his sons, Bernard, died at an early age, a grieving Maeght was encouraged by George Braque to build a chapel in his honor on the St. Paul site and to share his personal collection as an artist foundation, an unknown concept in France at that time. Maeght hired noted Spanish architect, Jose-Luis Sert, to design the structure and many of his artist friends contributed works. The Fondation opened in 1964.
The Fondation’s collection consists of Aime and Marguerite original works, donations by their artist friends, many of whom are now internationally-known, ranks as the fifth-largest museum in France, though it receives no state funds and operates as a private foundation.
The building’s main exhibit hall is a knockout. It contains eight significant paintings and sculptures by a 20th Century artistic Who’s Who of Fernand Leger, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Sam Francis, Alberto Giacometti and Wassily Kandinsky.
Joan Miro’s mysterious, captivating giant sculptures and playful fountains in his Labyrinth Garden, combined with the lush outdoor setting, is a sight that will remain with me forever. Miro’s genius has never been better displayed.
Many vacationers visit the Cote d’Azur for its endless summer weather, to catch a glimpse of the celebrities and millionaires who live there or to gawk at the rich and famous’ conspicuous trinkets, such as Steven Spielberg’s giant yacht (available for rent at a mere $375,000 a week). For me, the richer payoff is basking in the everyday life of the artistic “backyard” that, a century later, still impacts our world’s cultural legacy.